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The ruins of Port Arthur’s penal colony still offer more than a hint of the harsh environment that prevailed there for half a century before it was shut in 1877. Port Arthur was no place for the faint-hearted; with whippings and lengthy periods of solitary confinement standard forms of punishment.

In 2012 Australia, the presence of these convicts from elsewhere would be regarded as posing a serious risk to our nation’s security. It’s hard to imagine the Department of Immigration giving the green light to the transportation of such large numbers of undesirables. Alan Jones and his ilk would be apoplectic.

But the mid nineteenth century was an eternity away from our own brave new modern world. Terms like border security, irregular maritime arrivals and excised offshore places like Christmas Island, hadn’t yet slipped into our bureaucratic speak. People arriving in boats did not generate angst among the general populace. Although some writers and social commentators of that era like Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope eloquently expressed their concerns about the effects the harsh conditions was having on its inmates; theirs were minority views. The prevailing wisdom of the time was rooted in the thinking of the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham who believed that incarceration would ultimately compel convicts to see the error of their ways.

Future generations will, I suspect,look back in horror and be appalled at our hysterical policy of incarcerating those asylum seekers who succeed in reaching our shores by boat. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, boat arrivals still make up less than 3% of Australia’s migration rate. Yet in 2010 Australia only accepted 8,250 refugees. A country of our size and relative wealth surely has a significant role to play and shouldering our share of the burden.

Future generations will regard our Orwellian terminology and hardline policy of mandatory detention as an affront to basic human rights. The number of asylum seekers who self-harm or threaten to self-harm runs into the thousands every year. No doubt many of the staff working in these centres are also traumatised. Tomorrow’s leaders will wonder how, largely, as a nation of migrants we could have been so heartless and heavy-handed. Mandatory detention is an inhumane policy, perhaps on par with and as archaic as the mistreatment of convicts at Port Arthur.

There’s no denying we live in difficult, uncertain times. Even in the absence of any world wars, people everywhere are on the move. Medicine Sans Frontieres estimates there are up to 15 million refugees across the globe. In recent years, Australia has punched well above our weight, militarily speaking, in some of the world’s hotspots but surely we can also step up to provide more tangible and substantial humanitarian refuge to asylum seekers.

Our political leaders need to show more moral courage and implement a humanitarian approach to processing asylum seekers. Why can’t we move on from the scapegoating of people smugglers and look at the issues underlying the movement and dislocation of so many people in the world today. We need to put an end to the scaremongering and doublespeak that has thus far dominated this pseudo-debate about asylum seekers, queue jumpers, or refugees – call them what you will – or ordinary people feeling from extraordinary difficult circumstances.

We seem to have collective amnesia regarding the history of our nation. After all, shortly after the birth of white Australia; boats brought thousands of men, women and children to our penal colonies. Unaccompanied minors, ome as young nine years of age, made up some of these numbers.

Ill-fated attempts by the Government to broker a deal with Malaysia suggest perhaps that we have not been able to address this issue with any degree of competence. And relying on a neighbouring country that is not a signatory to the UN’s refugee convention on human rights to absolve us of any responsibility to humanely respond to some of society’s most vulnerable citizens, smacks of desperation.

Perhaps one day,our detention centres, like Port Arthur, will come to be regarded as curious anachronistic relics from our past. Places where too many people were detained needlessly for far too long.

In modern times even Port Arthur has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts. The horrific tragedy of 1996 is commemorated in a sensitive, appropriate fashion. The stark remnant of the Broad Arrow café requires no interpretive sign. The former penal colony now enjoys world heritage listing and it attracts over 250,000 tourists annually. On a recent tour at Port Arthur, our tour guide insisted the colony’s ghosts are still restless.

But when we will we be able to lay the ghosts of our modern day detention centres to rest? Judging from the absence of even a modicum of moral courage from the major political parties to humanely address this issue – the answer I’m afraid is no time soon.

• Australian Greens
MEDIA RELEASE
Tuesday 14 August 2012

Greens to move for time limits on offshore processing

The Australian Greens will move an amendment in the House of Representatives today to establish a one year time limit on the government’s cruel offshore processing bill.

“There must be a limit to the cruelty that the Australian government can inflict on refugees, so a time limit would be one simple way of minimising the damage that offshore processing has on refugees and vulnerable children.

“Today the Australian Greens will move an amendment to Labor’s offshore processing bill to ensure that any transfer of a person to an offshore place cannot be longer than 12 months, limiting detention of refugees on Nauru and Manus island to no longer than a year.

“Australians will be horrified to lean that rather than caring for refugees, Labor and Mr Abbott will lock up refugees indefinitely with no legal rights – left to rot possibly for decades – just like they were under John Howard.

“Indefinite detention is cruel and unlawful. It drives vulnerable people to the point of self-mutilation and children to madness.

“It is simply unacceptable to dump children and their families on an island prison with no limit to how long they will have to be there.

“The so-called ‘no advantage’ test is just another example of cynical spinning like ‘queue jumping’ – the truth of it is that there is no advantage to being one of the world’s most disadvantaged children”.

“History shows leaving people to rot in Nauru will cost lives, not save them.

“Last time we dumped people in Nauru for years on end without any hope or certainty we saw the escalation of a chronic mental health crisis. People who had asked for our protection were sewing their lips together, attempting suicide, hunger striking and self-harming.

“The best way to save lives is to take away the desperation that forces people to board boats.

“Instead the House of Representatives will step back in time this afternoon if it passes shameful legislation so that children can be dumped on Nauru with no legal safeguards, no time limits and no hope”.